A bevy of beverages


We received more than 30 entries across a range of categories for our 2019 Editors’ Picks Awards for Beverages. It was nothing like the near 250 entries we received for food entries earlier this year, but we expected that.

A few things about our Editors’ Picks Awards, which debuted in 2016. This year we decided to split the categories into three separate segments, considering entries were growing rapidly year by year. We anticipated we would receive more entries in the food segment and fewer entries in the beverage segment. While we awarded gold, silver and bronze honors for the top three products in each food category, we decided not to do that for beverage and non-food products because of the expected fewer entries. Rather, we are reporting on each product submitted and commenting on its role and potential impact as a private brand.

To be eligible for entry, the beverage products must have been introduced in 2018. We judged the entries on taste, innovation, on-trend impact and presentation. While we realize we didn’t receive every or even most of the beverages introduced for private label in 2018, many of the products we did receive are outstanding on many levels — from innovation to taste to premiumness to packaging. Some were also just average products and bordered on being national brand equivalents.

The Kroger Co.’s Private Selection Belgian Chocolate Milk
Manufactured by The Kroger Co.

The Kroger Co. cuts to the chase on the packaging of the 32-ounce plastic bottle of its Private Selection Belgian Chocolate Milk. On the side of the bottle, a callout reads, “A rich decadent indulgence with authentic Belgian chocolate.”

Private Selection is Kroger’s premium brand. This product is all about premium, from its engaging packaging to its super-rich chocolaty flavor.

Now, we all know that more consumers are clamoring for healthier beverage products, which is all fine and good, but this product just might get them off their collective health kick — even if for a brief time.

Yes, an 8-ounce serving contains 30 grams of sugar, including 17 grams of added sugar. A serving also contains 6 grams of saturated fat, which is 30% of the daily value.

But “decadent indulgence” never tasted so good. This premium product goes down smooth and easy, like a bike ride down a gentle, hilly country road on a warm sunny day.

It retails for $3.29.

ALDI’s Friendly Farms Organic DHA Omega-3 Whole Milk and Friendly Farms Organic DHA Omega-3 2% Milk
Manufactured by Aurora Organic Dairy

Quite frankly, this is some of the best milk we’ve ever tasted. Both versions, which feature highly refined fish oil on the ingredient label (source of the omega 3), exhibit a rich texture (but not too rich) and subtle but savory taste.

As most everyone in the industry knows, ALDI has been on a mission to enhance its private brands, which constitute more than 90% of the retailer’s offerings. The Friendly Farms private brand, including these products, reflect that upgrade well.

So does the own brand packaging of the products, which stands out in the cooler. The packaging also includes a product story on the side of each carton, stating: “Friendly Farms Organic strives to capture the simplicity and pureness of nature in our products every day. That’s why we support the organic movement, bringing your family honest goodness you can count on.”

Both products retail for $3.49 a half gallon. With regular milk going for $2 a gallon in some regions, $3.49 may appear expensive. But many consumers are willing to pay for the upgrade, which is what this milk offers.

Southeastern Grocers’ SE Grocers Italian Sweet Cream Coffee Creamer
Manufactured by Byrne Dairy

Sold under the SE Grocers store brand, this 32-ounce coffee creamer offers a sweet (but not too sweet), delectable and fresh taste. It is naturally and artificially flavored, and contains no artificial colors. It retails for $2.79.

Southeastern Grocers’ Naturally Better Almond Milk (chocolate-almond flavor)
Manufactured by HP Hood
Southeastern Grocers (SEG) almond-chocolate flavored almond milk is a fine example of an exceptional product in this category. The guess here is that four of five people would taste it and assume it’s run-of-the mill chocolate milk and not a dairy substitute.

More consumers are demanding plant-based products, and others are still skeptical of them. This product, sold under the retailer’s Naturally Better store brand, will more than appease the former and make believers out of the latter.

The product is not only good tasting, it’s on-trend. It has no artificial colors and flavors, and is gluten free, lactose free and soy free. It’s also an excellent source of calcium and Vitamin E.

A half-gallon retails for $2.47.

Kroger Simple Truth Organic Seltzer Water
Manufactured by The Kroger Co.
There aren’t too many organic options in the private label sparkling water category, but Kroger’s Simple Truth Organic Seltzer Water hits a home run from the moment you pop open the can. The line offers flavors such as orange vanilla, strawberry watermelon, cucumber melon, mixed berry and lemon lime. The fruity aroma of these beverages really set them apart from the competition. And the taste was also really good. Our favorites were strawberry melon and orange vanilla. The aroma and taste of the strawberry melon flavor was especially delicious.

In its first-quarter fiscal report, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen said that “by the end of this year, everyone in America will have the ability through our modalities to shop with Kroger whether they decide to come to our store, use our pickup or delivery service, or our Kroger Ship.” We imagine that many shoppers who are not already able to shop from Kroger’s impressive Simple Truth line will avail themselves of the option to do so very soon. With the sparkling water category projected to keep growing, these seltzer waters are poised to be among the most popular products flying off physical and digital shelves.

Kroger Fizz and Co. Seltzers
Manufactured by The Kroger Co.

The Kroger Co. introduced two new flavors to its Kroger brand Fizz & Co. Seltzers line in 2018 — seltzer water with a hint of the Dr. flavor and seltzer water with a hint of root beer flavor.

The Kroger brand is the retailer’s national brand equivalent line. Both products sport clean labels and feature zero sweeteners, calories and sugar. They are also caffeine free.

Kudos to Kroger for successfully adapting two longtime and popular flavors to seltzer water. The Dr. flavor is courtesy of Kroger’s Dr. K soda line, which tastes a lot like Dr. Pepper. Root beer, of course, has been around longer than Kroger, which is a 136 years old.

Surprisingly — or not — these flavors work very well in seltzer water. Their tastes are evident, yet subtle, and are refreshing and quenching.

The Fizz & Co. Seltzers retail for $2.99 a six pack.

Signature SELECT Soleil Sparkling Water
Manufactured by Albertsons Companies

Albertsons Companies’ Signature SELECT is one of several premium labels in the retailer’s family of Own Brands. It’s no wonder that the retailer is positioning Signature SELECT to take a firm spot in the rising demand for sparkling water among consumers.

According to Technomic, Americans spent about $1.7 billion on sparkling water in 2018. For its sparkling water line, called Soleil, Albertsons offers on-trend flavors such as cherry lime, pineapple coconut, blackberry vanilla and mango passionfruit. The beverages come in cans that look like they belong in hand on the beach: tropical flowers and fruits surround a cursive “Soleil” label. Calorie free, sweetener free and sodium free are called out, so shoppers know the drinks are better for you.

Last year, Albertsons debuted 1,100 new private brand SKUs and said it plans to add more than 1,000 during fiscal 2019. Some of those new SKUs will include new flavors of Soleil. After tasting some of the flavors mentioned above, our favorites were cherry lime and pineapple coconut. But all of the sparkling waters are so flavorful, they could almost pass for soda. Almost.

Albertsons Companies’ Signature SELECT Refresher Water
Manufactured by Star City Beverage

An excellent example of a store brand taking bottled water to another level —
and under a premium private brand line, which is Signature SELECT. The differentiation point: Albertsons Companies Refresher purified water contains alkaline and electrolytes.

The “alkaline” in alkaline water refers to its pH level, and some advocates of alkaline water believe it can neutralize the acid on one’s body, which can help slow the aging process, regulate the body’s pH level and prevent chronic diseases, according to

Electrolytes contain potassium and magnesium and help the body absorb water more quickly to help prevent dehydration.

Albertsons Companies’ banners sell the 1.5-liter version of Refresher for $1.99 with a promotional price of $1.49.

Albertsons Signature SELECT French Style Sparkling Lemonade
Manufactured by La Galvanina

The first thing to notice about Albertsons Companies’ Signature SELECT Sparkling Lemonades is that they come in beautiful colors and are housed in heavy glass bottles, which speaks volumes to the shopper of premiumness.

The beverages come in four flavors: pink lemonade, limeade, berry lemonade and lemonade. All of the beverages are made in France, and this is called out nicely on a pretty yet minimalist label.

All of the lemonades were delicious, but our favorites were the pink lemonade and the berry lemonade. The gorgeous colors of the beverages can’t be underestimated.

We had a hard time determining what was more beautiful: the color of the beverage or the taste. One could dress up these drinks by pouring them into champagne flutes and serving them at a spring soiree on the golf course. But they would also work for a casual summer cookout on the back patio.

The line of sparkling lemonades could be labeled as an indulgence product in terms of calories and sugar. A serving (there are three servings per each 33.8-ounce bottle) contains 47 grams of sugar and 190 calories.

But clearly indulgence was the intention by Albertsons Companies, and it does not outweigh innovation.

Each bottle retails for $2.99.

Boxed’s Prince & Spring Lyt Water
Manufactured by Mayer Brothers

It’s not just bottled water, according to Boxed, the growing online retailer of consumer packaged goods, including for private brands. It’s “vapor distilled water & electrolytes for taste.”

And it’s under Boxed’s burgeoning Prince & Spring private brand line.

Let’s start with the tall and sleek look of the 33.8-ounce plastic bottle. It’s so stately that you almost don’t want to drink it. In large sans serif type, the acronym LYT appears vertically on the bottle in bright blue type. But what does LYT stand for?

Clearly, the name shouts radiance and resplendency, which is its intention. But a closer look on the side of the bottle reveals three words in call caps: LOVE YOURSELF TODAY … or LYT.

And then there’s a story to tell: “Whether you’re at the gym, happy hour or on the go — live for today! Give your body a boost and quench your thirst with LYT Water. Infused with minerals for a crisp, fresh taste, it will hydrate your body and revitalize your soul. It’s more than water. It’s LYT.”

OK, maybe the copy is a little overboard (“revitalize your soul”), but so what? This is private brand personalization at its finest.

LYT tastes like water … dang good water! But the packaging and presentation have a lot to do with that.

There are 12 bottles of 1-liter each water to a case, which sells for $15.99 on Boxed’s website.

Boxed’s Prince & Spring Stellar Seltzer
Manufactured by Polar

Millennial-friendly Boxed sells bulk groceries on a digitally native platform that appeals to younger consumers. Its Prince & Spring private brand is the wholesaler’s answer to Costco’s Kirkland Signature. The Prince & Spring sparkling water line, called Stellar Seltzer, delivers the same kind of fresh, innovative experience to sparkling water lovers. Boxed rolled out Stellar Seltzer in March and it quickly became the top-selling choice among the 30 seltzer and sparkling waters Boxed offers, including La Croix and PepsiCo’s Bubly.

Boxed knows that millennials and Gen-Zers are attracted to eye-catching design, and the product delivers on that. Each can is decorated with Prince & Spring’s sleek personality, inviting consumers to toast colleagues at work or friends at a party, all with no alcohol, of course. Stellar Seltzer comes in four calorie-free and sweetener-free citrusy flavors: tangerine, lemon, lime and grapefruit. We loved the lemon.

It sells for $9.99 a 24-can case on
Boxed’s website.

Schnucks Sparkling Water
Manufactured by Keurig Dr Pepper

Schnucks Markets, which has a blockbuster private brands program, launched its own brand sparkling water line in 2018.

Schnucks Sparkling Water comes in a variety of delicious flavors including pure, lime, orange, grapefruit, berry and lemon. There are no artificial flavors or colors, no sweeteners, no calories and every variety is sodium free.

The Schnucks grapefruit flavor smells exactly like the fruit picked fresh off the tree. The taste is tart but not too tart. Effervescence level is perfect too.

Like many of Schnucks’ private brand products, the sparkling waters are dressed in cans that aim to impress the shopper. Each can has a modern, irreverent look clearly designed to appeal to younger consumers.

It sells for $3.99 a six pack.

Metro’s Irresistibles Smoothie Blueberry Blackberry Burst
Manufactured by A. Lassonde Inc.
It starts with the attractive packaging, which features bold colors and a callout that shouts “25% less sugar & calories.” A description of the product below its title states, “A refreshing blend of banana, apple and blackberry purees with concentrated fruit juices.” A photo of the product in a mason jar appears at the bottom of the half-gallon-sized container.

Its touted by its manufacturer as being a product that the whole family will love. Agreed. Canadian retailer Metro offers a product under its Irresistibles premium line that’s a smooth-tasting product without a lot of sugar (19 grams per 1-cup serving). It’s loaded with Vitamin C (100% per serving) and also a solid source of potassium, magnesium and copper.

It’s a healthy alternative — and a palatable one — to sugar-loaded smoothies.

The product retails for $3.49.

Southeastern Grocers’ Naturally Better Organic Apple Juice
Manufactured by Lassonde Pappas
Some people swear that organic products really do taste better than non-organic products. And we swear that Southeastern Grocers Organic Apple Juice, sold under its Naturally Better store brand, does taste better than regular apple juice.

The product is made from 100% organic apple juice concentrate and sells for $2.69 (64 ounces). It contains no added sugars. It has a full-bodied and nourishing taste.

Southeastern Grocers touts its Naturally Better line of organic and natural products as being free from more than 80 artificial ingredients. The retailer’s organic apple juice is a fine example.

Southeastern Grocers’ Prestige Tropical Juice Blend
Manufactured by Sun Orchard Fruit Co.

Southeastern Grocers’ Prestige store brand includes a “selection of specialty and indulgent products at a price that is still affordable,” according to the retailer.

Its Tropical Juice Blend, which combines 100% tangerine, mango and guava juice — and not from concentrate — fits the bill. The clean label product has three ingredients: tangerine juice, mango puree and guava puree.

Retailing for $2.99, it’s a sturdy juice with an anthology of tastes.

Schnucks Orange Juice
Manufactured by Johanna Foods

It’s just orange juice, but it’s not just orange juice.

Regional retailer Schnucks recently introduced orange juice not made from concentrate. And the word “not” appears in call capital letters on the label.

Consumers want more natural and less-processed foods. So Schnucks and Johanna Foods answered their call with a product containing just one ingredient on the label: orange juice … and without the pulp. There are no added sugars and no added nothing.

It also tastes like orange juice should taste — smooth, refreshing and healthy.

Southeastern Grocers Black Cherry Water Enhancer Manufactured by Heartland Food Products Group
Sold under the SE Grocers private brand, the Black Cherry Water Enhancer contains caffeine and Vitamin B to provide a sugar-free and flavorful energy boost. The 1.62-ounce bottle contains 24 servings and retails for $2.49.

Southeastern Grocers Peach Mango Drink Mix
Manufactured by TreeHouse Foods

Sold under the SE Grocers private brand, this box of Peach Mango drink mix comes in 10 separate on-the-go packets that can each be mixed with 16-ounces of water. The sugar-free product contains caffeine and Vitamin B for an energy boost. It retails for $1.89.

Albertsons Companies’ Signature RESERVE Hacienda La Pradera (Costa Rican Whole Bean Coffee)
Manufactured by Distant Lands Coffee
The premiumness of this product begins with the glossy black packaging, a signature of Albertsons Companies’ Signature RESERVE brand. On the back of the 12-ounce package, there’s a quick story about the product’s origin under the headline “A rare discovery.” The story reads: These limited crop beans are sourced from the Tarrazu region of Costa Rica from the Hacienda La Pradera farm, famous for its ideal growing conditions and rich, volcanic soil.”

And then there’s the aroma of the beans upon opening the package: Magnifico!

The taste is just as impressive: It has a rich and balanced full-body flavor with the right acidity.

Amazon’s Highland Village Reserve Organic Peruvian Cajamarca Coffee
Manufactured by Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA

We love everything about this Amazon own brand — from its exceptional packaging to its aroma to its taste. It’s a big bag of beans too — 2.5 pounds that retails for $25.

Manufactured by Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA, there’s a story on the package behind the Highland Village Reserve private brand explaining that the “best 100% Arabica coffees are grown in mountainous regions at high altitudes” where “small family farmers meticulously tend their coffee crops year after year.” On the back of the package, the product touts its Fair Trade certification (Fair Trade USA enables sustainable development and community empowerment by cultivating a more equitable global trade model that benefits farmers, workers, fishermen, consumers, industry and the Earth) and how Fair Trade dollars are invested into communities that produce coffee.

And then there’s the taste. Grown in the high Andes Mountains in Peru, it features a full-bodied and smooth taste with a fine aroma.

BJ’s Wholesale Club’s Wellsley Farms Ground Coffee
Developed and Distributed by International Marketing Systems (IMS)

When it comes to coffee, everyone has their favorites. But BJ’s Wholesale Club has found a way to appeal to all coffee lovers with its Wellsley Farms Guatemalan French Roast and Wellsley Farms Donut Shop coffee varieties.

The Guatemalan French Roast has a great aroma (during brewing, the smell fills the room), a strong bold taste and a well-balanced flavor profile (not too light, not too strong). We served this to guests who said they have tried so many different brands and types of coffee, and they loved the smooth taste of this product.

However, the favorite of the two was definitely the Donut Shop variety. This coffee blew us and our guests away with its smooth, even caramel-like taste. We could see shoppers keeping their BJ’s membership just so they can buy this coffee.

The Wellsley Farms coffees we tried are made from 100% Arabica beans.

Both retail for $11.99 per 2-pound bag.

BJ’s Wholesale Club’s Wellsley Farms Organic French Roast k-Cups
Manufactured by Keurig Dr Pepper
The price — $32.99 for 100 pods — isn’t the only selling point. This dark roast coffee offers a bold and robust flavor. Consumers have to ask themselves: Why buy a brand when I can have this?

See photographs of several of the products mentioned here below.